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Tactics Board: Ireland's youngsters did enough in Portugal to suggest there's more to come

Shane Keegan breaks down last night’s bitterly disappointing loss in the Algarve.


HAVING MANAGED A number of clubs in the League of Ireland, Shane Keegan is one of the country’s top coaches.

Today, the former Dundalk analyst picks the bones of last night’s World Cup qualifier in Faro, which saw the Republic of Ireland take the lead and battle heroically before eventually conceding two late goals — both scored by record-breaker Cristiano Ronaldo. 

portugal-v-republic-of-ireland-fifa-world-cup-2022-qualifier Ireland striker Adam Idah takes on Portugal's Ruben Dias. Source: Pedro Fiuza

When your most recent competitive fixture saw you lose at home to Luxembourg, the last thing you really need to be facing into is a game away to Uefa’s sixth highest ranked side, boasting a player who was looking to become the highest scorer of all time in international football.

Bookmakers, pundits and those Irish supporters who dared to be honest were all predicting only one result – success for Ronaldo and for Portugal.

But could Stephen Kenny and his young charges come up with a masterplan to surprise everyone?

Solid Irish defensive shape

A key feature of the Irish defensive shape from the off was their determination to stop Portugal playing through them in central areas.

Adam Idah was flanked by Jamie McGrath and Aaron Connolly either side of him and as a trio they stayed as narrow as possible. Behind them Josh Cullen and Jeff Hendrick offered close support.

This group of five maintained this shape really well when Portugal had the ball centrally, regardless of which third of the field they were in.



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The challenge that Portugal continuously posed was the fluidity of the movement of their front five. The first image below shows them lined up in the shape their team sheet would have had them in, with Diego Jota and Rafa Silva left and right of Ronaldo, while Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva operated as two tens.

But as we can see from the next two images, the players interchanged positions at will, with only Jota on the left remaining a permanent fixture.

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It would have been easy for the Irish side have been dragged all over the place by this movement but by playing in their zones, and with McGrath and Connolly flattening out their midfield four when the ball was high and wide, they frustrated Portugal’s attempts to find space in the final third.

Kenny sticks with his principles of trying to play out

There are many observers of this Irish team who believe Stephen Kenny quite simply does not have the players at his disposal to play out from the back in the manner that he encourages them, and they would have felt vindicated when an early mix up handed Portugal a penalty.

While the error lay primarily with young Gavin Bazuna for his under-hit pass to Hendrick, he certainly wasn’t helped by the position he had been put in by Shane Duffy.

The below image shows that having received his keepers initial pass, Duffy had a relatively easy out ball to Hendrick, who would either have had time to turn or pass to Dara O’Shea, depending on Fernandes’ movement.

By going back to his keeper, he handed him with a much more difficult pass as the Manchester United man was now in a far better position to apply pressure.

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Given the early mishap it would have been somewhat understandable if Ireland chose to take the more direct route in their build up play from there on. Instead though, they appeared to learn some lessons from the incident and improved significantly.

Jamie McGrath’s role in continually coming deep on his side to join the build up play was crucial as it helped to create an overload on that side. O’Shea would play in a traditional right back’s position when building up on that side allowing Seamus Coleman to push higher up.

In the example below, McGrath helps Ireland to get out and it ends up with Pepe having to make a very good covering run to stop the Donegal man from getting in. Coleman actually finished the game with the second most touches in the box for Ireland showing just how advanced a role he was playing.

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On the left-hand side of the field, Connolly was not as adept as McGrath at getting involved in the build-up play but he does offer other qualities.

Below you can see him coming into a similar position to those that McGrath took up, but he doesn’t manage to take control of Egan’s ball out.

When the loose ball breaks to Cullen though, he shows his explosive pace to get forward and exploit the space that’s been created by his initial movement, ending up on the end of what was probably Ireland’s best chance of the game.

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An Ireland goal straight off the Chelsea training ground

While Connolly may have missed that golden chance, he did at least force a late first half corner kick. Step forward Ireland coach, and set piece analysis expert, Anthony Barry.

Barry is of course also the first team coach at Chelsea. He must have been licking his lips when he analysed Portugal and found that they used the same zonal marking set up on defensive corner kicks as Premier League side Liverpool, a team he had faced just four days previous.

For Reece James and Kai Havertz read Jamie McGrath and John Egan. The delivery, run and trajectory for the header were all pretty much identical and crucially so was the outcome.

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The Portugal response? Cross the ball even more!

Portuguese manager Fernando Santos was forced into taking immediate action at half time. Off went winger Rafa Silva and on in his place came RB Leipzig centre forward Andre Silva. This meant a shuffle of his front three with Ronaldo now moving to the left and Jota coming across to the right.


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The thinking here was pretty clear. Firstly, with Stephen Kenny having been forced to introduce Andrew Omobamidele for his international debut on the right of his back three, Portugal would now try and get their talisman running directly at him.

Secondly, they would also have fancied some success from Ronaldo in the air if he could pull off onto Seamus Coleman when Portugal crossed from the right.

Ireland dealt with the first of these challenges very well with Omobamidele equipping himself more than adequately, with the help and support of his captain.

For the vast majority of the half they dealt with the second challenge very well too, though this had much to do with Ronaldo’s unwillingness to stay where his manager had positioned him.

Given the shape of Ireland’s front five players, the space for Portugal was always going to be out wide. That meant they were bound to have plenty of opportunities to swing the ball in but their finally tally of 52 attempted crosses (Ireland had five!) was astonishing.

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So why did Ronaldo, a player famed for his ability to leap high above his peers and power a header home, cut such a frustrated figure for 88 minutes despite the supply being so plentiful?

The first issue was the quality of the delivery. Too many of the second half crosses were easy for Duffy to deal with, and the ones that were accurate seemed to end up on the head of Andre Silva, who was less of an aerial threat.

That led Ronaldo to go wandering far too often. The images below show him in positions that Stephen Kenny would have been delighted with as the ball was being delivered.

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Cometh the hour, Cometh the man

But you can only keep a good man down for so long. With the minutes ticking away, Ronaldo reverted to the position that his manager gave him and hoped for better supply.

Portugal, having made four more changes since the break and now in 3-5-2 formation, were throwing everything at Ireland and the pressure eventually paid off.

In truth, when the goals finally came, they were less about systems and more about the individual quality that now makes the Portuguese star the highest goal scorer in international football history.

In the world of Cristiano Ronaldo, a second, never mind a minute, is an eternity.
The two pairs of images below are each taken one second apart. In first Duffy is touch tight but then before he knows it, he’s gone. In second, Coleman is safely out in front but suddenly, he isn’t.

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In the end it was all about one man. It was always going to be about one man.
But if Ireland really were just bit part players in ‘Ronaldo: The Movie’ last night, then you would have to say that many of them did enough to suggest they may have some starring roles themselves in the future.

With two more hugely important games in the next five days Idah, Cullen, Omobamidele and co will get the chance to further enhance their own reputations, and that of the man who has cast them into the spotlight.

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